I’ve always been turned off by the concept of networking.
In my mind, networking conjures images of crowded rooms filled with swarms of extroverts shaking hands and smiling insincerely, everyone more eager to talk than to listen. Over the din of clinking highball glasses, I picture back-slapping and horn-tooting, business card and favor trading, and maniacal chuckling over inside jokes.
In truth, I’ve never witnessed anything quite this horrific. Yet even situations far less extreme — like happy hour at a bar after work, schmoozing at a conference reception, or milling around at a client event — tend to make many feel uncomfortable, evoking flashbacks of awkward middle school dances.
I’m here to say that it’s ok. Building a vibrant network doesn’t have to look anything like this.
To me, it’s all about making meaningful connections with others: people who you trust and who trust you. People who you call for advice and those to whom you offer counsel in return. People who serve as mentors and sponsors, advocates, and sounding boards. There are many different ways to build meaningful connections that you can leverage for feedback, ideas exchange, and support.
Consider a geeky analogy: a computer network enables the transmission, exchange, and sharing of data and resources among multiple computing devices. Computer networks are what enable us to search, stream, and communicate electronically. There are various types of computer networks, each with a particular hardware and software setup, governed by protocols, and organized by a physical and logical network architecture. The appropriate networking solution depends on its scope and purpose.
That’s sort of what we’re talking about here — except we’re connecting people instead of computers. So, let’s explore some of the different ways we can build a vibrant (people) network by borrowing from the language of computer networking.
Local Area Network
A local area network (LAN) connects computing devices in a limited geographic region like a home, office building, or school. For example, a college campus LAN spans classroom buildings, dorms, and dining halls. In the people networking space, this is akin to fostering relationships within your typical domain: your company or your community. Think of it as strengthening the connections you already have before venturing into more unchartered territory.
So, how do you do that? Here are a few ideas.
Establish meaningful mentoring relationships: Choose a few people you already know with whom you can build a more meaningful connection. I always suggest thinking about someone who you particularly admire. This could be for any number of reasons: the way they handled a difficult situation, their time management skills, their technical acumen, their quiet confidence, their work-life balance, whatever. Request a one-on-one discussion and then, if the chemistry is right, suggest a recurring dialogue (like a monthly phone call or a quarterly lunch). This need not only be with senior leaders. Consider reaching out to a peer or someone more junior in the organization; sometimes called reverse mentoring, there’s a lot to learn from others with different perspectives and experiences. These one-on-one sessions allow you to develop a rapport with a colleague to whom you can reach out for meaningful advice or genuine feedback whenever necessary. It takes effort and commitment to maintain these relationships, but it pays dividends as your career progresses. Beware that you shouldn’t just ask this of others; also volunteer yourself to mentor and support colleagues.
Stay in touch with old friends and former colleagues: In the hustle and bustle of our busy lives, it’s easy to lose touch with people to whom we were once close. Don’t be afraid to return to past relationships to rebuild connections. How about a former manager? Whether you or that manager moved on to a new opportunity, there can be so much value in reconnecting. My prior managers got to know me — my strengths, my struggles, and my quirks. I’ve benefitted from reconnecting with them — learning about their new roles, getting their perspectives on mine, and brainstorming next steps. What about a friend from college or a colleague from a prior job? These are people with a shared history, and the relationship could serve you both well going forward. My father is exceptional at staying in touch with folks from all parts of his life, regularly placing calls to friends from high school, distant relatives, and colleagues from jobs early in his career. When I began building an invite list for his eightieth birthday party (that never actually happened due to COVID), I couldn’t get over how many people he had maintained connections with for all these years.
Wide Area Network
A wide area network (WAN) extends over a large geographic region, connecting multiple LANs. In people networking, this means extending your network beyond your immediate circle. But it doesn’t mean being thrust into an intimidating sea of nameless bodies. There are structured and rational ways to expand your network that can work for even the most reserved among us.
Join a common interest group: A common interest group brings together people who have a shared identity or passion. This could be a book club or volleyball team, your college alumni network, a trade association, or a technical society. At companies, these include business resource groups (BRGs) in which employees come together around topics including ethnicity, accessibility, and volunteerism. In technical societies, there are often special interest groups (SIGs) that help members share expertise, foster community, and stay abreast of trends in their particular area of specialty. As an example, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) has over 35 SIGs with focus ranging from artificial intelligence to information technology education. In my experience, it’s a lot easier to engage with others around a topic you care deeply about, and it’s a great way to build valuable connections. And if a relevant common interest group doesn’t already exist, don’t be afraid to start a new one!
Attend relevant conferences, events, and programs: Where possible, make a point to participate in experiences (in person or virtual) that align with your interests, and use these forums to broaden your network. These might include industry conferences, meetups, educational seminars, concerts, exhibits, or lecture series. I suspect many of us already attend such events — but are we deliberate in considering these as opportunities to expand our network? Remember that you and the others attending that concert or meetup all have something in common. Strike up a conversation with someone who asked a particularly compelling question. Share your point of view. Exchange contact information with the person sitting next to you. Follow up with a speaker by email. The connections I made at a women’s leadership program over 10 years ago are relationships I continue to value today.
In a mesh network topology, computer network nodes are connected to as many other nodes as possible. Mesh networks are inherently efficient and reliable, as they self-configure and self-organize to find the fastest ways to route information and ensure fault tolerance. If one node of a mesh network fails, many others are still available to send the data. In people networking, this means relying not only on individual one-on-one relationships but expanding to more diverse and varied connections.
Create a network of common interest groups: There’s a great opportunity to join forces across geographies or disciplines to bring groups together and find new synergies and connections. Maybe you’re a part of the New York women in science community; consider joining forces with groups in California or Canada to share best practices, meet their members, and understand differing perspectives. Take your passion for organic cooking to the next level by making your online club multi-national (you’ll probably learn a good number of new recipes). Perhaps you’re in a book club and a knitting club; consider organizing an event that brings them together. What happens when biologists start engaging with engineers? Whole new fields of study are born and these connections are the catalysts.
Engage in social media: Social media presents a whole world of possible connections, but it takes some effort to make these connections meaningful. An influencer with 100 million followers may or may not have a truly vibrant network. In my experience, it’s important to actively engage with others and find your voice. Certainly, you could start a blog or newsletter or create video posts on topics that you’re passionate about and have some subject matter expertise…but this isn’t necessary. Try commenting on posts and reflect on responses to keep the conversations going. Share others’ content. Direct message someone who piques your interest. Put thought into your online profile: how do you show up and what do you want to be known for? Help others expand their networks by fostering connections using social media.
In the end, these ideas (and many more) can help you assemble a vibrant network of confidants and advisors, people who will tell you the bald truth when necessary, and others who will prop you up when you need support. Some describe this as a personal board of directors. I like that analogy.
In business, a board of directors plays an essential role as a governing body by setting strategy and providing company oversight. The board isn’t running the business day-to-day (that job sits with the CEO), but it’s looking out for the company’s long-term direction and helping to decide where to place big bets. That’s the kind of support we all need.
Whatever the mechanism you use to establish connections, focus on making them meaningful and long-lasting — don’t just collect business cards or followers. Be thoughtful and prepared for discussions. If you commit to doing something, uphold those commitments. Where possible, make the relationships mutually beneficial; start with what you can offer — not what you need. Listen more than you talk.
Every one of us benefits from having a vibrant network. For sure, it’s valuable when you’re looking for a new job or want to be introduced to a potential client. But that’s just the start. It’s also about fueling your curiosity. Providing somewhere to go for feedback and support. Learning new skills. Influencing and guiding others. Uncovering new opportunities. Boosting confidence. Getting diverse perspectives. Exchanging ideas. There’s immeasurable value in building a vibrant network — and it can be done without any cringe-worthy back-slapping or horn-tooting.
Photo by Constantin Wenning on Unsplash